Wasted year of development? Tigers prospect Matt Manning begs to differ

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — He’s taken up yoga. He’s working out just about every day. He’s been throwing since his forearm strain healed back in September.

He’s in Lakeland right now, in fact, throwing full bullpens without restriction. He’s cleaned up his mechanics from the ground up. He looks lean and mean and champing at the bit and we're three weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting.

Tigers pitching prospect Matt Manning is returning to form after he was sidelined in 2020 with a forearm strain.

It’s hard to call it a wasted year of development for Tigers top pitching prospect Matt Manning.

“I’ve done more this offseason than I ever have before,” he said Thursday on a Zoom call. “I’m ready to go. Every day has been very focused. I have one goal, and that’s to get to the big leagues and pitch well and win a World Series for this team.”

Manning, the Tigers' first-round pick in 2016, celebrated his 23rd birthday Thursday in Lakeland. Had it not been for the pandemic and a subsequent forearm strain, he would’ve made his big-league debut last year, like his compatriots Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.

He spent a couple of weeks pitching in intrasquad games at the alternate site in Toledo, but was quickly shut down by the forearm issue. He didn’t throw another competitive pitch, not even during instructional league play where he was limited to side work only.

So, in that sense, his development was stunted.

“It was a weird year for everyone,” he said. “If circumstances were different, I might’ve got a call-up and got my feet wet. But everyone went through it and it affected everyone differently. I am just looking forward.”

In some ways, he said, the down time might have been a blessing in disguise. During spring training in Lakeland, before the shutdown, Manning was pumping his four-seam fastball in the upper-90s, even touching 100 mph. But his command was erratic, he lost the feel for his curveball and his slider was so unpolished, former pitching coach Rick Anderson made him stop throwing it.

The shutdown gave him time to go address all those issues.

“I was able to take that time and move some things around with my mechanics,” he said. “I was able to clean up my arm path a little bit. I was just able to do a lot more stuff and evolve from the ground up.”

Not only has he restructured his arm path, he’s also changed some grips. He’s still not throwing a slider, not a true slider, but he’s got the feel back on two, different-shaped curveballs.

“I think my curveball has gotten a lot better,” he said. “It tended to pop out (of his hand) sometimes. I got that dialed back in. I’ve been playing with the grips, as well, and started to change the shape. I am able to throw it with the 12-to-6 (vertical break) and throw it more horizontal.

“I’m still working on the change-up, too.”

The horizontal-breaking curveball can play like a slider, and Manning doesn’t mind if you call it a slider. But it’s really not.  

“It’s the same grip (as his curve),” he said. “I’m just throwing it with a new arm slot and a different wrist position.”

Manning is likely ticketed to start the season at Triple-A Toledo. Having not thrown competitive innings last year, he’ll need some time to get his legs back under him. But if he’s healthy and commanding that high-octane fastball of his, it won’t be long before he gets to experience what his buddies Mize and Skubal did last season.

“When they were up there (in Detroit) and I was at the alternate site, it felt like a piece was missing,” Manning said. “I hope that’s how they felt. I know they were having fun, but when we get all three of us, and Alex (Faedo, sidelined after Tommy John surgery) — when we are all together, we are comfortable and we’re happy.

“When one of us is away, we can feel it.”


Twitter: @cmccosky